North Korea Ordered to Pay $501M for Death of Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier testifying in North Korea after he was taken hostage in 2016.

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge slammed North Korea with a $501 million judgment Monday in connection to the death of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student whom it kept hostage for a year and a half.

The decision comes less than a week after Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell heard hours of emotional testimony from Warmbier’s parents, brother and sister.

At the evidentiary hearing in Washington, Warmbier’s family detailed how Otto’s long detention in North Korea affected them, and how they coped when the 22-year-old was finally sent home last year, in a coma from which he would never wake.

Recounting all this in his 46-page opinion, Howell held North Korea liable for Otto Warmbier’s death, as well as for his torture and time as a hostage.

“Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with ‘big dreams’ and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king,” Howell wrote. “He was blind, deaf and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home.”

The $501 million award includes economic losses, medical expenses, and $450 million in punitive damages – $150 million each to Warmbier’s estate and his mother and father, Cynthia and Fred. 

With the reclusive North Korean government having refused to participate in the case, Howell’s opinion largely rests on declarations and testimony submitted in the case by experts and Otto’s family.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act permits U.S. citizens to sue foreign countries under certain circumstances, and Howell’s ruling meticulously explains how the Warmbiers’ suit satisfied each of the law’s requirements.

Warmbier visited North Korea in December 2015 as part of a tour group while visiting Asia ahead of a semester abroad. As the group prepared to fly back to China in early January 2016, North Korean authorities apprehended him, and North Korea publicly announced through state media on Jan. 22 that he was being held for crimes against the state.

Two experts testified at last week’s hearing that North Korea likely coerced the February taped confession in which Warmbier said he took down the North Korean government’s propaganda posters at his tour group’s hotel.

North Korea convicted Otto on March 16, 2016, and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor.

As North Korea held the student in secret, his parents did not communicate with their son for more than a year. The family’s experts testified last week that Otto likely endured torture during his time in the North Korean prison. When Otto came back to the United States, his family noticed his teeth had been rearranged and he had a large scar on one of his feet.

During his detention, the State Department warned the Warmbiers that any public remarks they made about Otto could put him in danger if North Korea felt insulted. The State Department was confident, however, that North Korea would return Otto as part of a diplomatic trade.

When North Korea did send Otto back to his family in Ohio, he had been in a coma for more than a year. 

In place of the smart, likable, outgoing man who had left for Asia, the Warmbiers found Otto on June 13, 2017, strapped to a gurney in the back of the plane, thrashing about and screaming in guttural sounds. They testified last week that Otto was deaf and blind, with a shaved head and eyes that bulged from their sockets.

Though the North Koreans said Otto developed botulism while in captivity, Otto’s doctors disputed that diagnosis. They said for him to suffer the kind of trauma he did, something would have needed to cut blood flow to his brain for between five and 20 minutes.

Otto died less than a week later in the hospital, after doctors determined he would never recover and the Warmbiers decided to stop treatment.

Benjamin Hatch, an attorney for the Warmbiers with the firm McGuire Woods in Norfolk, Virginia, did not return a request for comment on the decision.  

It is unclear what steps the Warmbiers will take to enforce Judge Howell’s judgment against North Korea.

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